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Don’t Appease Putin

BRUSSELS – Both US President Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the Republican party’s putative nominee to succeed him, have criticized European members of NATO in recent months for failing to fulfill their defense-spending commitments. They have a point.

Europe has indeed, failed to uphold its side of the collective defense bargain. Almost all of America’s European allies have allowed their average defense spending to fall below the promised level of 2% of GDP, with some spending far less than that. More important, they have failed to build up a genuine European defense community. Unless they step up, they risk lending credence to Trump’s reckless claims that the Europeans are merely free riders, exploiting an “outdated” alliance at the expense of American taxpayers.

The global anti-establishment rebellion, seen through the eyes of Ricardo Hausmann, Theda Skocpol, Yanis Varoufakis, and other Project Syndicate commentators. One area where Europe can demonstrate its strategic value to the US is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Some already argue that the European Union has failed to exercise the soft-power options available to it to deal with an overly assertive Kremlin. But, while a broader EU strategy toward Russia is certainly lacking, there is still time to do what is needed to curb the Kremlin’s provocative behavior.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, EU countries implemented economic sanctions, including restrictions on credit to Russian banks and energy firms. The sanctions were linked to the implementation of the 2014 Minsk Protocol, which brought about today’s patchy ceasefire with Russian-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, and are supposed to expire at the end of next month.

But Ukraine still lacks full control of its borders and a reliable truce in Donbas. So G7 leaders recently pledged to prolong the sanctions until both the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements are fully respected. In the EU, however, the sanctions continue to be hotly debated, with diplomats from Hungary, Cyprus, Italy, and others softening their stance toward Russia. The Kremlin’s lobbying efforts seem to be having an impact.

And it is not only far-right extremists, such as supporters of France’s National Front, who are susceptible to Putin’s blandishments. Mainstream politicians in France and elsewhere have also started to question the current sanctions regime. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for example, has recommended easing the sanctions, provided that Russia fulfills certain conditions.

Beyond advocating for a loosening of sanctions, some European leaders are even cozying up to the Kremlin. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, widely regarded as a sanctions skeptic, will be a guest of honor at Putin’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum this week. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will also be in attendance.

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This is no time for Europe to “go soft” on Russia. Rather than attending a Putin-led conference and providing the Kremlin with a propaganda coup ahead of parliamentary elections – Juncker should place EU priorities at the forefront. Those priorities include the preservation of Europe’s post-Cold War political and security architecture, the protection of the territorial integrity of European countries, and respect for the shared norms embodied by institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe. Once Putin has agreed to support these priorities, discussions on Russia-EU economic cooperation can begin.

A weakening of sanctions on Russia might please European business leaders, but it would come at a steep long-term cost. Even with sanctions in place, the frozen conflict in Ukraine looks increasingly permanent. Easing sanctions now, with so little progress having been made under the latest Minsk agreement, would amount to a catastrophic collapse in Europe’s impact and credibility – and a major loss for Ukraine.

EU leaders must remain firm and united in ensuring that existing economic sanctions are lifted only if the Minsk agreement is implemented fully. This includes the full withdrawal of Russian forces and military equipment from Ukrainian territory, and restoration to Ukraine’s government of complete control over its border with Russia.

Insistence on Russian compliance in Ukraine is all the more important, given that the Kremlin’s actions there are just one example of the increasingly rogue behavior that the EU must seek to curb. Given this, rather than weakening sanctions, the EU should work to develop stronger measures aimed at Putin and his cronies, inspired by America’s Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials responsible for gross human-rights violations.

Such an approach would ensure that those who benefit from Putin’s crony capitalism could not launder their money and shelter their families in the West. In fact, such selective sanctions could be more effective in influencing Russian policy than the more generalized economic restrictions, as they provide an explicit and tangible warning to Russian elites that their impunity ends at the country’s borders.

Beyond sanctions, the EU and the United States must become much more proactive and efficient in combating the massive disinformation campaign that has become a potent weapon in the Kremlin’s “hybrid war” against Russia’s neighbors and the West. Likewise, the EU should devise ways to support civil society, students, researchers, and small- and medium-size enterprises in Russia, as they struggle for freedom, democracy, and prosperity. Finally, the EU needs to step up efforts to stem the flows of money and resources that Putin is using to destabilize and divide Europe’s political landscape.

Those who are calling for a softer approach to Russia need to remove their blinders and recognize the scale of the Kremlin’s efforts to bring about the EU’s disintegration. Given the prospect of a Trump administration in the US, such pressures are the last thing the EU needs. Holding firm on Russia is the only way to hold Europe together.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is absolutely right when she says she sees no reason to roll back sanctions on Russia. The Kremlin has done nothing to deserve such a reward. On the contrary, it deserves even stricter penalties.

By Guy Verhofstadt

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